There are many words one could use to describe the Ivan tomato: heirloom, meaty, juicy, prolific, hardy…But perhaps the most important are healer and inspiration. This tomato, which originated in Missouri, has come back twice from the brink of extinction to serve an important purpose: healing veterans with PTSD. It has also inspired two small community businesses, one of which is working to revive this variety.
This tomato was grown for generations in Missouri but its cultivation slowed until only one family, the Scheurenbergs of Ashland, MO, was growing it. By the late 1980s a branch of the family that had stopped growing the tomato was approached by a plucky uncle with six Ivan seeds. Those six seeds grew into a thriving business, Heartland Family Nursery, which specialized in selling plant starters and seeds to home gardeners. The Ivan was a cornerstone of their tomato operation. Jerry Scheurenberg, the driving force behind Heartland Nursery, was a Vietnam vet, and over the course of a few years, Jerry was able to begin to heal from the horrors of war. Weeding, pruning, harvesting, and eating served as such good agricultural therapy for him that he invited other vets to work on the farm, and before long, Heartland Nursery was a thriving operation with an important social mission. It continued to be the chief commercial grower for the Ivan tomato until Jerry’s declining health slowed the business down to its last sale in 2012.
It is no accident that the Ivan was the centerpiece of this venture. One plant can bear 50 pounds of softball-sized red fruits, which hang on the vine through drought, flooding, and extreme heat. Invulnerable to the type of molds and funghi that plague similar varieties, it is easy to grow in mid-Western climates without the use of chemicals. It is juicy and extremely delicious eaten raw, and also holds up well to canning.
In 2009, farmers who had been inspired by Jerry’s work and the Ivan tomato’s flavor, utility, and ease of cultivation undertook a project to keep the variety in widespread commercial production and to support veterans. Eating and growing the Ivan tomato is sure to be a transformative experience. Eat it to save it so that it can continue to heal and inspire for decades to come!